Monday, August 31, 2009

Notable New Translations: The Rasskazy Anthology, Post 1 -- Background

Some people look for summer thrills in surfing or skydiving. Not me. I get excited when I read new writers and have a chance to recommend a good Russian book on my blog. So here you go: Rasskazy: New Fiction from a New Russia, an English-language anthology of very contemporary Russian stories.

After reading about a third of the stories in Rasskazy, paging through the rest, and reading author bios, two thing have struck me: the unusual readability of the translations and the variety of the writers’ topics and styles. I’m pretty tough to please when it comes to translation, but the stories I’ve read only in English read naturally, normally. Meaning I could read in peace without wondering what I was missing. When I’ve read stories first in Russian then in translation (or vice versa), the translations reflected the vocabulary and tone of the originals.

Mikhail Iossel, one of the book’s editors, told me producing Rasskazy was a labor-intensive process involving unique challenges because translators worked with texts written by a new generation of writers, whose language also feels new. (Rasskazy situations include blogging, drugs, sex, and military conflict, topics that beg for specialized, slangy, or very individual vocabulary.) Generation was the primary guiding principle for selecting authors: the oldest Rasskazy writer is Dmitry Danilov, now 40. Says Iossel, “We wanted for all of them to have grown up after the disintegration of the Soviet Union.”

Space was the other major limiting factor for Iossel, his co-editor Jeff Parker, and publisher Tin House. Rasskazy contains 22 stories chosen from about 50 writers’ work. Iossel says compiling the book built on experience he and Parker gained editing Amerika: Russian Writers View the United States, an anthology of essays that Dalkey Archive Press published in 2004. Rasskazy also draws on holding Summer Literary Seminar writing conferences in St. Petersburg for the last decade. Iossel says one program goal is to put St. Petersburg “into the literary mind of America.” (The St. Petersburg SLS is on hiatus for a summer or two.)

Iossel describes the current profusion of new literary talent in Russia as an “explosion,” with the new generation coming into its own several years ago, after something of a lull in fiction. Though he says “you can pretty much write anything at all,” Iossel notes that literature is not censored because audiences are so small. There is censorship on Russian TV and radio, however, and Iossel compares the current political atmosphere to the Soviet era and says society is “engulfed in this post-imperial syndrome.” He believes Russian literature and writers have “a very apt sense for the condition of nonfreedom and they feel comfortable.”

Though translations account for only about three percent of books published in the United States, Iossel says some publishing houses – he specifically mentioned Dalkey and Gray Wolfare working to raise that figure. He thinks those efforts reflect Americans’ weariness of isolationism and their wishes to look into other lives and aesthetic experiences. “Literature does bring people together like no other art form,” says Iossel. He adds that Rasskazy is a good way for people to learn about what’s happening in Russia, both politically and aesthetically: “Everyone interested in Russia should probably take a look at it.”

I think Rasskazy’s varying voices on Russian life are a big part of the book’s fun and appeal. I pick, randomly, at anthologies rather than reading them cover to cover and have been welcoming the element of the unexpected in Rasskazy. Today: a dog named Ivan Denisovich who likes pel’meni in Oleg Zobern’s “Bregovich’s Sixth Journey,” translated by Keith Gessen. Who knows what I’ll find tomorrow?

I’ll write more about specific stories in September.

Note: This post is the first in my “Notable New Translations” category. My plan is to write more about new translations because they, their publishers, and their translators never seem to get enough attention. I encourage publishers, writers, and translators to tell me about upcoming translations so I can work them into my reading, if possible, and the blog, at the appropriate time.

Rasskazy on Amazon

Amerika on Amazon


  1. I just added Rasskazy to my Amazon wish list, with highest priority!

  2. Hi Lisa!

    Interesting, what you said about the translations in Rasskazy. Mine actually makes me cringe, because it was the first story I translated by Kozlov a couple years ago. I've done 12 stories total now, and over time I developed a style and consistency, and also just got better, at translating and at translating Kozlov's particular choice of language. It's true, what Misha said about tricky translating this "new" Russian. There was plenty of language not in the dictionary, that I had to decend into slang forums and google in attempt to define by context. Anyway, I edited the entire collection up to par with the later stories, and now the old "Drill and Song Day" hurts me to look at. I think it's probably just fine, but it looks painfully unedited to me! :)

  3. Andrea, thank you for your candid comment! I think that sinking feeling about older work is common: I get it, too, when I look back at some of my writing. It's nice to hear that you got into a rhythm, of sorts, with the Kozlov stories -- you'll have to let me know when there's news about the collection!

    As for the old original "Drill and Song Day" in Rasskazy... I think you did very nicely capturing the tone of the original and handling the words and phrases I thought would be most difficult to translate when I read the original. Plus I think the translation reads well. I don't compare translations and originals side by side but I usually read them one after another. (The holistic approach, ha ha!)

    You had great material to work with: I particularly liked the combination of retro and official with (formerly) forbidden. I think that, plus the language, felt very familiar for me because of the era when I spent so much time in Russia.